Jean Metzinger

French (1884-1956)

Jean Metzinger was born in Nantes, 24 June 1883 and died in Paris, 3 Nov 1956. Although he came from a military family, following the early death of his father he pursued his own interests in mathematics, music and painting. By 1900 he was a student at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Nantes, where he worked under the portrait painter Hippolyte Touront. After sending three pictures to the Salon des Indépendants in 1903, he moved to Paris with the proceeds from their sale. Thus, from the age of 20, Metzinger supported himself as a professional painter, a fact that may account for some of the shifts to which his art submitted in later years. He exhibited regularly in Paris from 1903, taking part in 1904 in a group show with Touront and Raoul Dufy at the gallery run by Berthe Weill and also participating in the Salon d’Automne in that year. By 1906 he had enough prestige to be elected to the hanging committee of the Salon des Indépendants. By the time he began dating his works around 1905 he was an ardent participant in the Neo-Impressionist revival led by Henri Edmond Cross. He also formed a close friendship at this time with Robert Delaunay, with whom he shared an exhibition at Berthe Weill early in 1907. The two of them were singled out by one critic in 1907 as divisionists who used large, mosaic-like ‘cubes’ to construct small but highly symbolic compositions.


Metzinger soon made contact with other major figures of the avant-garde. Later in 1907 he met the poet Max Jacob and through him Guillaume Apollinaire and then Picasso. It was probably in 1909 that he and Albert Gleizes became acquainted with each other; the two of them, together with Delaunay, Henri Le Fauconnier and Fernand Leger, were identified as a group by 1910, and their separate room at the Salon des Indépendants in 1911 became the first organized presentation of Cubism. On the strength of the controversy generated by his painting Tea Time (1911; Philadelphia, PA, Mus. A.), also known as Woman with a Teaspoon or Mona Lisa with Teaspoon, Metzinger became known as the ‘prince’ of Cubism. An article published by him in 1910, moreover, was the first to recognize common concerns in the work of four artists only later grouped together in relation to Cubism: Picasso, Braque, Delaunay and Le Fauconnier. His style developed confidently and independently in the years leading up to World War I, during which he and Gleizes wrote Du Cubisme (Paris, 1912), the first substantial text on the new art. His portrait of Albert Gleizes dates from the same year. In paintings such as Dancer in the Café he particularly dwelled on the exoticism of modern Parisian life, deliberately conflating visual references to contemporary life (dancing, smoking, drinking) with others drawn either from European traditions or from East Asian or native American cultures.

His pictures also reflect his interest in sports, especially bicycle racing (e.g. The Cyclist, 1912; Venice, Guggenheim) and sailing, a motif used consistently by him as a metaphor for life. At the same time his paintings obeyed the strictest laws of construction, carefully following the proportions of the golden section with regard not only to orthogonals but also to spiral movement.

In 1912 Metzinger participated in the Salon de la Section d’Or and in the second exhibition of the Moderne Kunstkring, and he began teaching at the Académie de la Palette in the Montparnasse district, where Le Fauconnier had recently been appointed director. Among his many pupils were Nadezhda Udal’tsova and Lyubov’ Popova.

Metzinger had avoided military service in his youth and was resolutely opposed to war. At the outbreak of World War I his friends Gleizes, Leger and Jacques Villon were sent off to join their regiments, while he signed a pacifist manifesto written by the poet Alexander Mercereau, fearful that the momentum of his art and the international thrust of modernism would also be destroyed. In mid-March 1915 the auxiliary service to which he was attached was joined to the fifth section of the military ambulance corps. Metzinger served as a stretcher-bearer for over 18 months and witnessed carnage to which he made only oblique reference in his art. During a period of leave in Paris in 1916, he signed a contract with the dealer Léonce Rosenberg, granting him exclusive rights to his production in return for a monthly stipend. When he was finally discharged in the autumn of 1916, he became friendly with a group of Cubists, almost all of them foreign, that included Maria Blanchard, Juan Gris, Diego Rivera, Jacques Lipchitz and Andre Lhote, and the poets Pierre Reverdy and Blaise Cendrars. During the bombardment of Paris in the summer of 1918 Metzinger, together with his wife and daughter, joined Gris and Lipchitz at Beaulieu-les-Loches, near Loches. He produced some of the most austere, sombre and haunting paintings of his entire career from 1914 through 1919, his palette heavily weighted towards green and black or towards brown and blue, as in Woman Knitting.

In a series of port views painted at Boulogne-sur-Mer in the summer of 1920 Metzinger began to veer towards more readable, less fragmented forms. These pictures were strongly endorsed by Rosenberg, at whose Galerie de l’Effort Moderne in Paris Metzinger showed throughout the 1920s. By 1922 the shift away from Cubism towards ‘Purism’ had grown even more pronounced. Metzinger was not an active member of the circle around Le Corbusier and Amedee Ozenfant, but he did contribute to Ozenfant’s review L’Elan. He also came under the influence of the rappel a l’ordre, reviving themes and references, especially harlequins and scenes from the Italian or French comedy, borrowed from Watteau through Corot to Derain, but retaining an underlying solidity residual to his early Cubist convictions. From 1923 he was romantically involved with a young Greek, Suzanne Phocas, whom he married after the death of his first wife in 1929. From 1925, when he adopted much brighter colours, and 1930 he was affected by the example of Leger’s work in his preference for urban and still-life subject-matter and for references to science and technology with a firm pictorial construction. Never losing his wry wit, he continued to fill his pictures with visual metaphors, relying during this period on juxtaposition rather than conflation, as in Roulette, in which a wheel of fortune and croupier’s hoe suggest the radically different alternatives imposed on life by fortune.


Elements of Surrealism are apparent in Metzinger’s work during the 1930s, for example in the illustrations he produced for the Poucets (Paris, 1935) by Fernand Marc and in the large mural Mystique of Travel, which he executed for the Salle de Cinema in the railway pavilion of the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne held in Paris in 1937. After World War II, however, Metzinger’s paintings, rarely dated, were largely pastiches of his earlier Cubist works, combining the iconography that dominated his art during the 1920s with the structural and formal attributes of his pictures of the decade before. At his instigation, he and Gleizes, with whom he had not been in contact since the early 1920s, published a deluxe revised edition of Du Cubisme in 1947 with original prints, a new foreword by Gleizes and an afterword by Metzinger. Although the new texts demonstrate each artist’s divergence from the goals of 1912, they indicate also that Metzinger retained a practical, commonsense approach, acknowledging the necessity for adapting to changing times.

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